Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

From Boris Johnson to Oscar Wilde: who is the wittiest of them all?

Today marks the publication of the fifth edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations under the editorship of broadcaster and former MP Gyles Brandreth. But who is the wittiest of them all? Of the 5,000 sharpest, wittiest, and funniest lines recorded in the new edition of the Dictionary, Gyles here reveals the people most quoted in its pages, and also highlights his personal top ten favourite quotations.

By Gyles Brandreth

Most Quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations – The magnificent seven
It is fitting to see that today, on Oscar Wilde’s birthday, Wilde is leagues ahead of the rest of the pack. He is without doubt the most quoted and quotable of them all. Bernard Shaw’s plays may not be performed as often as once they were, but his lines remain memorable. Woody Allen is the only living person to make the top ten and he has pushed the great eighteenth century lexicographer and wit, Dr. Johnson, into eighth place.

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) – 92 entries
George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) – 55 entries
Noel Coward (1899–1973) – 53 entries
Mark Twain (1835–1910) – 43 entries
Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) – 43 entries
P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975) – 42 entries
Woody Allen (1935–) – 35 entries

Statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Park, Dublin
 Wittiest Women – The top five most quoted
In this edition of the Dictionary, women feature more than ever before. As well as the classic wit of Jane Austen and George Eliot, and established favourites such as Dorothy Parker and Mae West, twenty-first century newcomers include Jo Brand and Miranda Hart.

Dorothy Parker (1893–1967)
Mae West (1892–1980)
Fran Lebowitz (1946–)
Joan Rivers (1933–)
Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013)

Priceless British Politicians – The top five most quoted
Margaret Thatcher was not noted for her sense of humour, but she is in the top five because she said some memorable things, such as this oft-quoted line: ‘If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.’ Sometimes Thatcher’s lines were written for her by speech-writers; that’s the one difference between her and the men in the list, all of whom created their own lines. Interestingly, Conservatives appear to be consistently more amusing than other politicians. The most-quoted American politician in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations is Adlai Stevenson, followed closely by Ronald Reagan.

Winston Churchill (1874–1965)
Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81)
Boris Johnson (1964–)
Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013)
Harold Macmillan (1894–1986)

Brandreth’s Choice – Top ten humorous quotations of all time
My personal top ten selection reflects the range of contributors to the Dictionary – and what’s making me smile today. The joy of a dictionary like this is that, with over 5000 quotations, I can have ten different favourites every week and not run out of them for ten years.

Gyles Brandreth

1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen (1775–1817)
2. Nancy Astor: “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!” Winston Churchill: “And if I were your husband I would drink it.”
3. “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.” – Groucho Marx (1890-1977)
4. “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.” – Mae West (1892–1980)
5. “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” – Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)
6. “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” – P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975)
7. “If God had wanted us to bend over, He would have put diamonds on the floor.” – Joan Rivers (1933–)
8. “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” – Miles Kington (1941–2008)
9. “If you lived in Sheffield and were called Sebastian, you had to learn to run fast at a very early stage.” – Sebastian Coe (1956–)
10. “The email of the species is deadlier than the mail.” – Stephen Fry (1957–)

Editor’s Pick – Top five one-liners of the 21st century

1. “My policy on cake is still pro having it and pro eating it!” – Boris Johnson (1964–)
2. “We’re supposed to have just a small family affair.” – Prince William (1982 –) on his wedding
3. “All my friends started getting boyfriends. But I didn’t want a boyfriend, I wanted a thirteen colour biro.” – Victoria Wood (1953–)
4. “I saw that show ‘Fifty Things To Do Before You Die’. I would have thought the obvious one was ‘Shout For Help’.” – Jimmy Carr (1972–)
5. “I will take questions from the guys, but from the girls I want telephone numbers.” – Silvio Berlusconi (1936–)

Do you agree with Gyles’s choices? Let us know in the comments or join in the discussion on Twitter: @OxfordWords #amlaughing.

Gyles Brandreth is a writer, broadcaster, former MP and government whip, now best known as a reporter for The One Show on BBC1, a regular on Radio 4’s Just A Minute and the host of Wordaholics on Radio 4. A former Oxford scholar and President of the Oxford Union, a journalist and award-winning interviewer, a theatre producer, an actor and after-dinner speaker, he has been collecting quotations for more than fifty years.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only language articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Image credit: (1) Statue of Oscar Wilde. By Arbol01 [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons; (2) Photograph © Gyles Brandreth

Recent Comments

  1. BobK99

    ‘Goodness, what lovely diamonds!’

    ‘Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.’

    Mae West, I think; but my ODQ3 (which I KNOW has it ‘cos I was part of the editorial team that put it there :)) is downstairs and ODQ2 (which I have to hand) was too po-faced to include it.


  2. MIHAI



  3. MIHAI


  4. Barry Pittard

    Barry Pittard’s iPhone text to his daughter:

    To call you a crybaby is an insult to wall babies.

    Sharmi Pittard:

    I had never heard of a wall baby.

    Barry Pittard: Neither had I. But the makers of the Apple spellchecker had

Comments are closed.